Fear of the Devil – as an atheist

Question from Evelyn:
So I recently accepted being an atheist and I’m fine with it. But even though it’s easy for me to accept that there probably isn’t any God and I’ve been praying to dust this whole time, I still find myself panicking at the thought of Satan. I still have the same fears as when I was religious, and I find myself quickly making sure I didn’t commit blasphemy, or praise the devil. I figure it’s from all the fear techniques people from my religion used to get people to follow them. I wasn’t in any cult religion or anything, just Christian. But looking back the way it was fed to me was quite like the manner of a cult. Anyway, I just want to know if you have any tips for my irrational fear of the devil coming to eat my soul. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is the best word I’ve ever invented.

This happens to a lot of people because fear of Hell and Satan goes beyond the intellectual. You’re not frightened of him just because they’ve told you he’s there, or else you’d have stopped being frightened when you became an atheist. Rather it’s been drilled into your subconscious to the point where your emotions bypass rational thought entirely and you simply behave as if there’s a devil. There’s no particularly insidious technique the religious use to achieve this, they just speak and preach to you as if it’s all true until you internalise it as an unspoken assumption.

Fortunately, this kind of conditioned fear needs regular reinforcement to persist at the same strength, and as an atheist you’re not getting that reinforcement anymore. (Some evangelists threaten atheists with hell in an attempt to reach lapsed believers with some last-minute reinforcement, and sometimes it probably works on individuals, but generally speaking it’s a futile effort.) It’s still bad now, I know, but it will fade over time until you calmly look back on your prior fear and see it for what it was, namely unjustified and needless.

If you want to try to speed up the process to save yourself some stress in the long term, equip yourself with a little ridicule. Satan has shown up in popular culture quite a lot recently (try this list), and in nearly every case some aspect of the concept of Satan is held up to the light and found to be silly in some way. There’s not that much media openly ridiculing all religious faith (yet), but criticising and lampooning specific ideas within specific doctrines is fine, and the Devil is a prime target. Go check out some different takes on the character. My personal favourite is Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, who makes a raucous but really quite robust case that he’s actually the good guy.

Finally, just take a moment of self-awareness whenever you find yourself afraid of something you don’t really think is there. The more you catch yourself at it, the less you’ll end up doing it. And don’t worry, because right now is worse than it’s ever going to feel again.

Fear

Question from Emma:
I am not sure if I am brave enough to be an atheist. I am pretty cowardly and I fear death, however the only logical explanation I can reach is that God doesn’t exist, at least not in the way people think. Are most Christians only Christians because they are scared?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’ve reached the conclusion that God doesn’t exist then you’re an atheist, whether or not you like it or you think you’re brave enough. Nobody said atheists had to be happy about the absence of gods; some actively wish there were a god, while others are relieved that there apparently isn’t.

Some Christians really are Christians because of fear, or at least they continue to believe in God because they want God to exist. They don’t consider that this isn’t a good reason to believe something, or that it makes it no more likely to be true, because they have become emotionally dependent on the idea of a personal god. I know this from personal experience – not my own former beliefs, really, but the beliefs of some of those close enough to me to admit the nature of their belief. (It’s simple enough to ask, “Why do you believe that?” but someone might need to be very open to answer it truthfully.)

Of course it’s not as simple as belief assuaging one’s fears and atheism leaving one defenceless. Christianity is itself as much a source of fear as any religion. The adjective “God-fearing” is usually meant as a compliment, for crying out loud. The idea of nothing after death isn’t the only reason to fear it; fear of Hell is part and parcel of the core doctrine of Christianity, and the Church’s main method of keeping and controlling its adherents. This is why so many ex-believers feel a huge sense of relief when they let it all go.

If you leave your religion, your fear of death probably won’t change much. Your real worry will be guilt, and the added fear of retribution by God, during and/or after your mortal life. It’s an irrational fear for someone who doesn’t think there’s a God, but it happens all the same. It’s a symptom of what I call “faithdrawal”, the psychological fallout of the loss of faith. Believe me, it fades over time.

Finally, you’re not cowardly just because you’re afraid of something. Bravery is about facing and overcoming fear, so if you weren’t afraid you’d have no way to be brave. You’re well on your way to courage if you’re delving into this issue, working to make your peace with the concept of death.

Dreaming of Hell

Question from Huzur:
Hello. I’m a twenty five years old male. I don’t believe in god anymore. Not until 15 at least. However sometimes my mind scares me, such as going to hell for eternity. So my question is: Do other atheists also ever get any christian themed nightmares?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t, but many atheists who were raised as Christians certainly do. Here’s a bunch of them talking about it.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever dreaming of Hell or the equivalent. I consider myself lucky that my old Catholic primary school and church were light on the fire and brimstone, and my separation from them was not charged with emotion. While I believed, I was very serious about sin and punishment, but now I just get the odd pang of unexplained guilt.

Depending on the severity of your religious upbringing, the fear you suffered as a child may qualify as clinically defined psychological trauma, and you could now be suffering post-traumatic stress. You don’t need to have been to Vietnam to get this, anything which scares or horrifies a person enough can trigger it. Regardless, if the nightmares and the fear keep up you might want to try counselling.

Richard Dawkins talks about this kind of thing a lot. He goes so far as to label scaring kids with hellfire as child abuse, and suggests that it can in some cases be worse than sexual abuse. That sounds extreme, but there is some terrible indoctrination out there (Nate Phelps, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, has a harrowing story) and some very mild and ineffectual sexual abuse (Dawkins himself was fondled by a priest as a child, and merely thought it was “yucky”). His detractors have claimed that he wants to have children removed from religious parents, but of course he’s never suggested anything like this.

Although your experience is not universal, you are far from alone. Take comfort in that, and in the fact that it can get better over time. Maybe you could use some help, maybe you’re fine, but I really feel for you.